Deals speak to Sporting KC's strategy
If the news out of Kansas City is any indication, the next stage of MLS development is well underway.
There's no argument against the idea that MLS needs to spend more on players. There's no argument against the notion that, when MLS spends, the goal should be to identify younger talent who isn't joining the league to simply grab one more big payday, mostly earned by the power of fame rather than the remaining strength of ability. There's no argument against the idea that MLS needs more locally developed talent, not only to improve the level of play but also as way to bring in more money through its possible sale.
But none of those things should preclude the league from also rewarding American stars who don't suffer for options abroad but might be inclined to stay at home if all things -- most importantly paychecks -- are relatively equal.
Sporting Kansas City is working to develop homegrown talent. The club is not afraid to take a chance on a foreign player of obvious talent, whether he is a veteran or youngster. The defending MLS Cup champion won't hesitate to spin players on for a fee if it makes sense in the larger play.
And by virtue of the decision to sign defender Matt Besler and midfielder Graham Zusi to Designated Player contracts to prevent their departure for Europe, Sporting proved that it sees the importance of retaining World Cup-caliber Americans who are not only key to its fortunes on the field but represent the very heart of the club's philosophy.
Individually, the decisions of Besler and Zusi are up for question. Coming off their World Cup performances, neither is ever likely to have as much interest from abroad as they did before signing deals to remain in Kansas City through 2018. The soccer dynamic still dictates that if players can grab the European ring, they do so without a second thought. European soccer is bigger, better and richer. While MLS continues to make strides competitively and financially, it will typically lose out on most fronts.
What that presumed dynamic fails to take into account is what the players believe is best for not only their careers but also their lives as well-rounded individuals. Besler and Zusi -- like every one of their soccer-playing peers -- considered factors that went well beyond the simple notion of making the most money or playing on the biggest stage. For Besler, especially, the idea of sticking around in his hometown, perhaps winning another title or two and becoming a club legend in the process was surely compelling.
Most of the focus will be on the choice Besler and Zusi made to remain in MLS. Let's not forget to consider the genius of Sporting, however, as it possessed the foresight to leave open the DP slots necessary to keep its two big American stars when the time came to make that choice. If neither Besler nor Zusi drummed up any foreign interest, Sporting might have used those slots on foreign signings or brought back a U.S. international -- a la Clint Dempsey and Michael Bradley. Instead, the pair of Sporting players forced the club's hand, earning a significant pay raise while also demanding the status of Designated Player. (Make no mistake: The prestige of the tag has its own attractiveness for players.)
Now Sporting has moved forward, confident of two anchor players around which it can continue to shape the team while chasing more MLS silverware. The signing of Besler and Zusi to DP contracts says as much about that club, in that place, with that clear and effective strategy, as it does about the league's ability to hold on to the best American players on the whole. CEO Robb Heineman pulls the strings from the executive suite while coach Peter Vermes executes a plan on the field; the two elements work in harmony on a level that is rare enough in MLS that it's easy to see that Saturday's news is part of the club's overarching vision.
Even clubs that turn their rosters over from season to season in a bid to find the perfect formula or to replace aging and ineffective players can count on one or two names to remain the same. Those players are the ballast in a ship thrashed about by the seas of player movement. Sporting Kansas City now has its ballast. Besler and Zusi now have their payday and their status.
MLS development complicates the usual dynamic, the one that says a player in his prime with European interest should always go because that's where players get better and the soccer is stronger. While the North American competition doesn't have the brighter lights and isn't on the level of the top handful of European leagues and clubs in terms of quality, the expanding gray area -- the open question of which is better for each individual player in his individual circumstances, here or there -- means Besler and Zusi probably won't be exceptions to the rule in the not-too-distant future.
Jason Davis is a writer from Virginia covering American soccer. He also hosts a daily soccer podcast that covers the beautiful game. Follow him @davisjsn.